Recently we lost a friend of the family. I went to the viewing and the funeral, the things one does in such a situation — even if it means the weirdness of returning to a Catholic church after all these years.
And then this weekend I read poetry and played music at the “Gathering for Everything that’s Left”, a peace event originally planned by activist Jay Marx and continued after his passing by his friends as a sort of memorial.
It’s made me think about what’s going to happen when I die. I don’t mean medically or metaphysically, I mean in terms of ritual.
Now perhaps it’s jumping the gun to assume anyone will give a damn, that they won’t just dig a shallow hole and unceremoniously dump my corpus therein, without words or a marker. But if anyone cares, I don’t want some priest who I never even met to be talking about me. I don’t want any talk about how my “soul” left my body like a pilot ejecting from a doomed aircraft and is in some sort of paradise now or is getting ready for another mission. No naive afterlife BS.
Of course I want a wake in the Irish style, with beer and wine and whiskey and music and poetry and dancing and laughing. If this life does not inspire a party, than I shall deserve that unmarked shallow grave. (That’s a personal self-judgment of my own life, no disrespect to anyone else who might be of a quieter disposition.)
But in terms of ritual, I want someone to speak something like this:
A fire happens when certain elements — heat, oxygen, fuel — come together. So it is with a person. Our parents meet, there is food and water and air to enable us to grow, there are other people who teach us to be human. The elements assemble and dance for a while. And then…
[blows out candle]
…the dance stops.
Where did that flame go? If we look only on the surface, we say it does not exist. It was here and we could see it, but now we can’t see it, so its gone.
But maybe we can look deeper.
The light rays, the photons, put out by that fire sped off at the speed of light. Some of them went out the window (or up into the sky) and are outside the atmosphere by now, speeding through space. So some of the fire is there. Some hit the walls or the floor (or the ground or the trees) and were absorbed by the atoms there — now there’s a tiny, tiny bit of the fire in each of those atoms.
Some of the fire went into the air and heated it up. If we could see into the infrared maybe we could still see it, spreading out in intricate currents. Some of the air it heated might have made its way by now into your lungs, the fire touching you most intimately.
And some of it went into our eyes. It was absorbed right into our nervous systems. It caused perception and memory to happen to us. And those marks on our brains are still there.
The fire is no longer being generated, that’s true. But the things it did didn’t just disappear.
Now that fire is partly inside of us and partly inside the rest of the world. It’s more spread out and mixed up than it was when it was something centered at the candle, so much so that we might say it doesn’t exist on it’s own anymore — but if we remember that the fire was a dance of heat and oxygen and fuel, then we see it never existed on its own in the first place.
So what’s happened to Tom? If we look only on the surface, we say he does not exist anymore. He was here and we could see him, but now we can’t see him, so he’s gone.
But let’s look deeper.
He was not his body any more than the candle is the flame. He was a reaction between his body and the rest of the Cosmos, a boundary condition, a liminal thing. And that reaction has stopped, that boundary has collapsed. He is not attached to that body anymore, just as the flame is no longer at the candle.
He’s more spread out now and less active, more mixed up into the rest of the world now.
He’s more mixed up into us.
So take care of him, please.